“Have you camped here before?”
We both looked a little startled at the question, then answered almost in unison as we mentally did the math.
“30 years ago,” we replied.
I think we both expected some sort of reaction from the questioning National Park Service guy, who looked like he could have very well been an apple-cheeked ranger recruit those three decades ago. But we’ve discovered that there are two basic personality types in the rangering world: the happy, talkative “let me tell you everything I know about this wonderful world we share” kind and the stoic type, who maybe, just maybe would tell you your pants were on fire if they threatened to spread to his beloved forest. This guy was definitely of the latter ilk.
“Nothing much changed,” was his laconic reply. “No fires except on the beach and the mosquitoes are just as big as ever.”
We hadn’t really considered the “30 years ago” implications of this trip going into it. We simply have two weddings to attend, both in North Carolina, but a few weeks apart. Rather than subject our NC-based son and daughter-in-law to our constant presence and unable to swing hotel bills for that extended stay, we decided we’d kill some time in a most delightful way, camping our way up and down the eastern seaboard, with planned stops on the Carolina Outer Banks and the barrier islands of Maryland and Delaware, with hoped-for visits to Washington DC, Jamestown and Williamsburg. If time, weather and circumstances cooperate, we may even make it to Boston and part of Vermont, which are places I’ve visited and have always wanted my co-pilot to see. The whole 30-year bit, and the idea of this being some kind of reunion tour, sort of like those sad rock and roll confabs featuring greying combos like the erstwhile Monkees and Grass Roots, are not the reason for this extended jaunt. No, we just wanted to go out and rough it. Again.
But it’s a fun thing to compare that last big east coast swing with this one. It’s no surprise that some things have changed.
Me, for instance.
30 years ago, I was a young advertising guy who had just been laid off from a job in the office of a small farm implement company. Happily, I quickly found another job, but with a hitch. The new gig would not start for another month, so we had some time to do something fun, though not much money to do it with. We were experienced campers, with a tricked-out Volkswagen van that gave us maximum portable shelter, if not a lot of amenities.
We also had a year-and-a-half-old child.
As young parents, we benefited from not knowing any better and assumed that young master Sloan would eat, swim, sleep and otherwise behave like a miniature adult.
To the astonishment of all who observed him, he did, keeping pace with a lively band of older cousins with nary an untoward peep to speak of. Colin remains a dedicated camper, even with a family of his own. In fact, my coffee this morning came from a camp pot he gave me from his collection of primitive camping gear. His brother Paddy, who came along a couple of years later, is the full inheritor of the family beach gene, thinking that any water is worth diving into, any time.
This trip has, so far, been kind of like a shakedown cruise, as we work out the kinks and learn again how to camp out for days and nights at a time without losing our toothbrushes, our car keys or our minds.
Already, my rustiness has shown, as evidenced by my recent failure to check the inside of my swim suit for sand burrs and the heartbreaking sight of a sea gull eating the last doughnut in the box as we returned from our morning walk along the shore.
But this, too, will pass, though modern-day survival also requires that we refine our skills to include the ability to track down WiFi hotspots and wall outlets for charging cell phones.
Today, that meant the Ocracoke Coffee Company, where I was forced to endure a giant cinnamon roll while sipping a hot, black cup of strong coffee and composing (and sending) this column. This afternoon, we have a date with a beach. And a book. And a nap.
Roughing it. Again.